Was Muhammad Illiterate? The Hadith Evidence
In this article, I compile multiple hadiths that gives evidence towards Prophet Muhammad being a literate person. In next part, I plan to discuss the Qur’anic evidence related to this subject.
Arabic language is not precise language by any means. I do realize that when it is written “the prophet wrote”, it does not necessarily entail that the prophet himself did the writing. However, I do believe the hadiths cited below, in combination with the part II discussion of the Qur’anic evidence related to this matter, will lead an objective researcher to conclude that, in fact, prophet Muhammad was able to read and write.
Hadiths below are just a part of the multiple hadiths that point us to thinking that prophet Muhammad was able to read and write. There are many other hadith that point to this fact also. I chose not to include them for fear of repetition or for worry about the length of this article. I am one of those people who see that a web article that goes beyond four or five pages will lose the interest of the reader.
I numbered the quoted hadiths below so as to give comments about some of them. The reader can view the hadiths themselves toward the final part of this article. I present my comments first.
- A general comment is that multiplicity of hadiths state “the prophet wrote”. It is difficult to accept the claim that this means that Muhammad had a scribe do the writing for him in every instance.
- Some hadiths point to a direct fact that the prophet was able to read and write. For instance, in hadith number three below, we see the prophet on his death bed asking for a writing paper so he can write on it.
- In hadith number four, we see the prophet himself “rubbing out” certain words from the Hudaibiya treaty. How can this be if Muhammad did not know how to read and write? Muhammad had to know which words he needed to rub out. Such knowledge does not happen if one cannot read written words.
- Hadith number six below talks about the first time the angel came to Muhammad and asked him to read twice. Muhammad’s answer was telling the angel and repeating that he is not a reader. The expression in Arabic that Muhammad said was “Ma ana biqari”, which means “I am not a reader”. In Arabic, this expression is not clear at all. It could mean that Muhammad was saying “I can’t read”. But also equally could mean “I do not want to read” (at this time). By no means Muhammad’s expression here makes us deduce that Muhammad was illiterates in the sense that he could not read or write to start with. Now, most Muslims in the world read the story of the angel appearing to Muhammad, and interpret Muhammad’s expression to mean that he was an illiterate man, who could not read or write. In fact, this interpretation is a misguided one indeed. Allah of Islam is an all-knowing being. If he knew that Muhammad was not able to read and write, why would he send an angle to ask him to read to start with. I find this angel story providing evidence to the fact that Muhammad was able to read and write.
- Muslims believe that Muhammad was not able to read and write is a faith-strengthening factor for them. They think that an illiterate man, who got such a language-eloquent book, must be a prophet of the almighty. What makes the Qur’an more miraculous is the “illiterate” man behind it. This Muslim belief is actually a fallacy. Far from being a piece of top-level literature, the Qur’an is replete with linguistic errors. In fact, Arabic grammar rules were violated in multiplicity of places. Qur’anic experts on the language of the Qur’an struggle with the grammatical problems of the Qur’an, and on finding “ways” to justify them.
- Hadith number 11 is a direct evidence that Muhammad was able to read and write, as it states “the text of the document was written by the prophet.”
- I do believe that the hadiths below testify to the fact that it is more probable than not that Muhammad was able to read and write.
In the second part of this work, I will discuss the Qur’anic evidence related to the topic under consideration.
- Narrated Anas bin Malik: Once the prophet wrote a letter or had an idea of writing a letter. The prophet was told that they (rulers) would not read letters unless they were sealed. So the prophet got a silver ring made with “Muhammad Allah’s Apostle” engraved on it. As if I were just observing its white glitter in the hand of the prophet (Book #3, Hadith #65)
- Narrated Abdullah bin Abbas: Allah’s Apostle wrote to Caesar and invited him to Islam and sent him his letter with Dihya Al-Kalbi whom Allah’s Apostle ordered to hand it over to the Governor of Busra who would forward it to Caesar… (Book #52, Hadith #191)
- Narrated ‘Ubaidullah bin ‘Abdullah: Ibn ‘Abbas said, “When the ailment of the prophet became worse, he said, ‘Bring for me (writing) paper and I will write for you a statement after which you will not go astray.‘ But ‘Umar said, ‘The prophet is seriously ill, and we have got Allah’s Book with us and that is sufficient for us.’ But the companions of the prophet differed about this and there was a hue and cry. On that the prophet said to them, ‘Go away (and leave me alone). It is not right that you should quarrel in front of me.” Ibn ‘Abbas came out saying, “It was most unfortunate (a great disaster) that Allah’s Apostle was prevented from writing that statement for them because of their disagreement and noise. (Note: It is apparent from this Hadith that Ibn ‘Abbes had witnessed the event and came out saying this statement. The truth is not so, for Ibn ‘Abbas used to say this statement on narrating the Hadith and he had not witnessed the event personally. See Fath Al-Bari Vol. 1, p.220 footnote.) (See Hadith No. 228, Vol. 4). (Book #3, Hadith #114)
- Narrated Al-Bara bin ‘Azib: When Allah’s Apostle concluded a peace treaty with the people of Hudaibiya, Ali bin Abu Talib wrote the document and he mentioned in it, “Muhammad, Allah’s Apostle .” The pagans said, “Don’t write: ‘Muhammad, Allah’s Apostle‘, for if you were an apostle we would not fight with you.” Allah’s Apostle asked Ali to rub it out, but Ali said, “I will not be the person to rub it out.” Allah’s Apostle rubbed it out and made peace with them on the condition that the prophetand his companions would enter Mecca and stay there for three days, and that they would enter with their weapons in cases. (Book #49, Hadith #862)
- Narrated Al-Bara: When the prophet intended to perform the ‘Umra he sent a person to the people of Mecca asking their permission to enter Mecca. They stipulated that he would not stay for more than three days and would not enter it except with sheathed arms and would not preach (Islam) to any of them. So Ali bin Abi-Talib started writing the treaty between them. He wrote, “This is what Muhammad, Apostle of Allah has agreed to.” The (Meccans) said, “If we knew that you (Muhammad) are the Apostle of Allah, then we would not have prevented you and would have followed you. But write, ‘This is what Muhammad bin ‘Abdullah has agreed to…’ “On that Allah’s Apostle said, “By Allah, I am Muhammad bin ‘Abdullah, and, by Allah, I am Apostle of ‘Allah.” Allah’s Apostle used not to write; so he asked ‘Ali to erase the expression of Apostle of Allah. On that ‘Ali said, “By Allah I will never erase it.” Allah’s Apostle said (to ‘Ali), “Let me see the paper.” When ‘Ali showed him the paper, the prophet erased the expression with his own hand. When Allah’s Apostle had entered Mecca and three days had elapsed, the Meccans came to ‘Ali and said, “Let your friend (i.e. the prophet) quit Mecca.” Ali informed Allah’s Apostle about it and Allah’s Apostle said, “Yes,” and then he departed. (Book #53, Hadith #408)
- Narrated ‘Aisha: The commencement of (the Divine Inspirations to) Allah’s Apostle was in the form of true dreams. The Angel came to him and said, “Read! In the Name of your Lord Who has created all exists), has created man from a clot. Read! And your Lord is Most Generous, Who has taught (the writing) by the pen (the first person to write was prophet Idris. (96.1-4) (Book #60, Hadith #480)
- Narrated Ibn ‘Abbas: When Allah’s Apostle was on his death-bed and in the house there were some people among whom was ‘Umar bin Al-Khattab, the prophet said, “Come, let me write for you a statement after which you will not go astray.” ‘Umar said, “The prophet is seriously ill and you have the Qur’an; so the Book of Allah is enough for us.” The people present in the house differed and quarrelled. Some said “Go near so that the prophet may write for you a statement after which you will not go astray,” while the others said as Umar said. When they caused a hue and cry before the prophet, Allah’s Apostle said, “Go away!” Narrated ‘Ubaidullah: Ibn ‘Abbas used to say, “It was very unfortunate that Allah’s Apostle was prevented from writing that statement for them because of their disagreement and noise.” (Book #70, Hadith #573)
- Abu Laila ‘Abdullah b. ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Sahl reported that the elderly persons of (the tribe) had informed Sahl b. Abu Hathma that ‘Abdullah b. Sahl and Muhayyisa went out to Khaibar under some distress which had afflicted them. Muhayyisa came and informed that Abdutlah b. Sahl had been killed, and (his dead body) had been thrown in a well or in a ditch. He came to the Jews and said: By Allah, it is you who have killed him. They said: By Allah, we have not killed him. He then came to his people, and made mention of that to them. Then came he and his brother Huwayyisa, and he was older than he, and ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Sahl. Then Muhayyisa went to speak, and it was he who had accompanied (‘Abdullah) to Khaibar, whereupon Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) said to Muhayyisa: Observe greatness of the great (he meant the seniority of age). Then Huwayyisa spoke and then Muhayyisa also spoke. Thereupon Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) said: They should either pay blood-wit for your companion, or be prepared for war. Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) wrote about it to them (to the Jews). They wrote: Verily, by Allah, we have not killed him. Thereupon Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) said to Huwayyisa and Muhayyisa and Abd al-Rahman: Are you prepared to take oath in order to entitle yourselves for the blood-wit of your companion? They said: No. He (the Holy prophet) said: Then the Jews will take oath (of their innocence). They said: They are not Muslims. Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him), however, himself paid the blood-wit to them and sent to them one hundred camels until they entered into their houses, Sahl said: One red she-camel among them kicked me. (Book #016, Hadith #4126)
- It has been narrated on the authority of Anas that the prophet of Allah (may peace be upon him) wrote to Chosroes (King of Persia), Caesar (Emperor of Rome), Negus (King of Abyssinia) and every (other) despot inviting them to Allah, the Exalted. And this Negus was not the one for whom the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) had said the funeral prayers. (Book #019, Hadith #4382)
- Narrated Umar ibn al-Khattab: Sa’id said: Umar ibn al-Khattab said: Blood-money is meant for the clan of the slain, and she will not inherit from the blood-money of her husband. Ad-Dahhak ibn Sufyan said: The Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) wrote to me that I should give a share to the wife of Ashyam ad-Dubabi from the blood-money of her husband. So Umar withdrew his opinion. Ahmad ibn Salih said: AbdurRazzaq transmitted this tradition to us from Ma’mar, from az-Zuhri on the authority of Sa’id. In this version he said: The prophet (peace_be_upon_him) made him governor over the bedouins. (Book #18, Hadith #2921)
- Narrated Mujja’ah ibn Mirarah al-Yamani: Mujja’ah went to the prophet (peace_be_upon_him) asking him for the blood-money of his brother whom Banu Sadus from Banu Dhuhl had killed. The prophet (peace_be_upon_him) said: Had I appointed blood-money for a polytheist, I should have appointed it for your brother. But I shall give you compensation for him. So the prophet (peace_be_upon_him) wrote (a document) for him that he should be given a hundred camels which were to be acquired from the fifth taken from the polytheists of Banu Dhuhl. So he took a part of them, for Banu Dhuhl embraced Islam. He then asked AbuBakr for them later on, and brought to him the document of the prophet (peace_be_upon_him). So AbuBakr wrote for him that he should be given one thousand two hundred sa’s from the sadaqah of al-Yamamah; four thousand (sa’s) of wheat, four thousand (sa’s) of barley, and four thousand (sa’s) of dates. The text of the document written by theprophet (peace_be_upon_him) for Mujja’ah was as follows: “In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful. This document is from Muhammad, the prophet, to Mujja’ah ibn Mirarah of Banu Sulma. I have given him one hundred camels from the first fifth acquired from the polytheist of Banu Dhuhl as a compensation for his brother.” (Book #19, Hadith #2984)
- Narrated Yazid ibn Abdullah: We were at Mirbad. A man with dishevelled hair and holding a piece of red skin in his hand came. We said: You appear to be a bedouin. He said: Yes. We said: Give us this piece of skin in your hand. He then gave it to us and we read it. It contained the text: “From Muhammad, Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him), to Banu Zuhayr ibn Uqaysh. If you bear witness that there is no god but Allah, and that Muhammad is the Apostle of Allah, offer prayer, pay zakat, pay the fifth from the booty, and the portion of the prophet (peace_be_upon_him) and his special portion (safi), you will be under by the protection of Allah and His Apostle.” We then asked: Who wrote this document for you? He replied: The Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him). (Book #19, Hadith #2993)
- Narrated Amir ibn Shahr: When the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) appeared as a prophet, Hamdan said to me: Will you go to this man and negotiate for us (with him)? If you accept something, we shall accept it, and if you disapprove of something, we shall disapprove of it. I said: Yes. So I proceeded until I came to the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him). I liked his motive and my people embraced Islam. The Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) wrote the document for Umayr Dhu Marran. He also sent Malik ibn Murarah ar-Rahawi to all the (people of) Yemen. So Akk Dhu Khaywan embraced Islam. Akk was told: Go to the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him), and obtain his protection for your town and property. He therefore came (to him) and the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) wrote a document for him: “In the name of Allah, Most Beneficent, Most Merciful. From Muhammad, the Apostle of Allah, to Akk Dhu Khaywan. If he is true his land, property and slave, he has the security and the protection of Allah, and Muhammad, the Apostle of Allah. Written by Khalid ibn Sa’id ibn al-’As.” (Book #19, Hadith#3021)
- Narrated Abdullah ibn Abbas: The prophet (peace_be_upon_him) wrote a letter to Heraclius: “From Muhammad, the Apostle of Allah, to Hiraql (Heraclius), Chief of the Byzantines. Peace be to those who follow the guidance.” Ibn Yahya reported on the authority of Ibn Abbas that AbuSufyan said to him: We then came to see Hiraql (Heraclius) who seated us before him. He then called for the letter from the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him). Its contents were: “In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful, from Muhammad the Apostle of Allah, to Hiraql, chief of Byzantines. Peace be to those who follow the guidance. To proceed.” (Book #41, Hadith #5117)
- Narrated Muslim ibn al-Harith ibn Muslim at-Tamimi: A similar tradition (to No. 5061) has been transmitted by Muslim ibn al-Harith ibn Muslim at-Tamimi on the authority of his father from the prophet (peace_be_upon_him) through a different chain of narrators, up to “protection from it”. But this version says: “before speaking to anyone”. In this version Ali ibn Sahl said that his father told him. Ali and Ibn al-Musaffa said: The Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) sent us on an expedition. When we reached the place of attack, I galloped my horse and outstripped my companions, and the people of that locality received me with a great noise. I said to them: Say “There is no god but Allah,” and you will be protected. They said this. My companions blamed me, saying: You deprived us of the booty. When we came to the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him), they told him what I had done. So he called me, appreciating what I had done, and said: Allah has recorded for you so and so (a reward) for every man of them. AbdurRahman said: I forgot the reward. The Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) then said: I shall write a will for you after me. He did this and stamped it, and gave it to me, saying….He then mentioned the rest of the tradition to the same effect. Ibn al-Musaffa said: I heard al-Harith ibn Muslim ibn al-Harith at-Tamimi transmitting it from his father. (Book #41, Hadith #5062)
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